In the far north of Colombia, arching to the east above the border with Venezuela. Lies a dry and desolate landscape visited by few. Soft sandy “roads” marked with the jagged edges of brittle desert shrubs guide you to a peninsula inhabited by a few isolated communities. Rocky cliffs, barren bluffs and golden sand dunes. A landscape unlike any other in Colombia, unlike anything I expected to find in Colombia. The La Guajira Peninsula, the home of the Wayuu tribe. The strip of land where the Northern tip of the continent of South America juts into the Caribbean Sea. And it is here that you will find the dusty settlement of Punta Gallinas. The Extremo Norte. The culmination of a 3-day adventure to the end of a continent.
Let’s Take an Adventure…
It all started in the sleepy beach town of Palomino, Colombia. After a few days spent exploring the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Ciara, Jamie and I were ready for some heat and a change of scenery. Ciara and I had met in Nicaragua, reunited in Costa Rica and travelled down through Panama into Colombia together. We had met up with Jamie, an old friend and colleague of mine from Whistler, in Santa Marta. The three of us had been together for about a week now and had landed in Palomino for a few days of downtime.
The plan was to spend a couple of days relaxing on the beach before heading back south towards the tourist hotspot of Tyrona National Park. It was our final day, and we were gathering ourselves to float down the Rio Palomino, beer in hand, with a crew we had formed over the last few days.
The Best Plan is Often the Unexpected.
We had finally managed pulled ourselves together and were about to leave the hostel when a barefoot Jodie came running down the path. Jodie and I had started our trip together two months ago but once we reached Cartagena she had gone ahead of me. She was bursting with excitement. We embraced each other, stumbling as we touched hair and skin reacquainting ourselves with our travel companion. Her skin more bronze, eyes wild, hair golden from the sun. She had just returned from a 3-day trip to the far north of Colombia and words flowed from her painting a picture of adventure that I never expected from this wild, lush country.
We were immediately entranced by her tales of sand dunes, crystal clear waters off the tourist’s map. It was an area that we had heard so little about, it barely took up half a page in my trusty Lonely Planet. Jamie had been planning to make the journey North, but as Jodie’s words wove a tapestry of adventure Ciara and I were immediately sold. The prospect of an off the beaten track adventure was too tempting to pass up. And so, the decision was made. Instead of heading south to Tyrona after our float, we would take a bus north to Riohaca and take on the Extremo Norte.
Head First Into Unchartered Territory
As we climbed on board the local bus heading north, we waved goodbye to the “Gringo Trail” that had become a comfort and looked forward to the unknown. Jodie had given us a rough run down but said to speak to reception at the hostel as they could give us more specifics. All we knew was it was going to run us about 150,000 pesos (about $65 CAD) for the three-day tour plus a few bits and bobs along the way.
To get to Punta Gallinas, is fairly straight forward… are you paying attention? Ok, good.
First step is to take a shared taxi from Riohaca to Uribia, the last official town in Colombia. This costs 15,000 COP per person. The road ends in this dusty little crossroad of a town, and here you hire a driver with a 4×4. They are always hanging out here waiting for the few souls who wander up to this part of the world. The driver then takes you out into the desert. Two and half hours of expert driving down soft sand “roads” brings you to the dusty landing strip known as Cabo De La Vela.
This is the gateway to the end of the continent, and where you will need someone with a strong command of the Spanish language. You can make do with basic Spanish, but to ensure you negotiate all the details, the more Spanish you know the better. Here you’ll negotiate the next few days with your driver, it should cost you about 150,000 COP each.
What does that include?
- A half day tour around Cabo De La Vela
- Accommodation in Cabo de la Vela (in a hammock)
- A driver on day 2 to go from Cabo to the Port (at 5am)
- A 3-hour boat ride to Punta Gallinas
- A day tour of the extreme north
- Accommodation in Punta Gallinas (in a hammock)
- Transportation back to Uribia on day 3
After some confusion, bartering and general back and forth, Ciara had us all organized. We tucked into a lunch of fresh langoustine and prepared for our afternoon tour.
Our half day tour from Cabo de la Vela took us out to some bluffs, up to a lookout point, to a golden sand beach and to one last sunset look out. As backpackers do, we liven things up with stories of past adventures and a few too many Polar beers, which was an unexpected taste of Venezuela. We arrived back just after dark, said goodbye to our driver, flipped a coin purse to decide whether to dine at “peely paint” or “angry midget” and called it a night.
Now when they say they include accommodation? It means you get a hammock under a cover. A couple of us had opted to pay the extra for a room with four walls and a fan and were sorely disappointed when the power cut out at 10pm. And so began one of the longest nights of Ciara and Jamie’s life, and the hottest night on record for me.
Inside the air quickly grew stale with the lack of fan. The close Caribbean heat still trapped from the day, barely dissipated when I finally cracked at midnight and pried my window open. It was then that the onslaught of mosquitos began feasting. The kid friendly roll on bug repellent that we had purchased last-minute did nothing more than provide a mere 10 minutes of reprieve. Meanwhile on the hammocks, Jamie and Ciara were treated to a sleepless night listening to the sounds of a dog dig a hole beneath their hammocks. And the unsettling sound of someone chopping wood in the middle of the night.
Needless to say, we were a less than cheery bunch as we gathered our things together at 5am the next morning and downed as many tiny cups of coffee as we could get our hands on. We attempted naps on the drive to the port but getting tossed around in the back of our land cruiser made it near impossible. Delirious with lack of sleep and egging each other on, we made light of the situation at hand as best we could. A few mental breaks took hold as we were ushered to an old tin boat outfitted with two water-logged mattresses for seats. In near hysterics, cracking inappropriate jokes, we climbed to the front of our boat, “Only in South America…”. The mood was light as we made the 3-hour crossing to Punta Gallinas. A sneaky bottle of rum made time go faster and kept spirits light.
By the time we arrived we were glowing like pirates, we had befriended our driver by offering him a few swigs, and systematically annoyed everyone else on our boat. Particularly one very unhappy German guy who spent the entire 3 hours getting splashed in the face due to his poor choice of seats. Breakfast was waiting for us when we arrived. There was a total of about 60 of us staying at one of the two “Hospedajes” in Punta Gallinas. After we ate and were shown to our rooms (we all opted for private that night) and were split into land cruisers.
Arriving to the end of a continent
Much like our day 1, day 2 took us around to the main sights. We went to the most northern point in South America. We looked out over a vast and colour changing bay from high atop cliffs. But the undeniable highlight was climbing to the top of a 100m high sand dune and seeing it disappear in to the vibrant turquoise water of the Caribbean. Feet sinking into the silky soft sand, the dune tumbling down before us. Nothing but sand and sea surrounded us, and not a soul in sight. It was unlike anything I had seen before, or ever expected from Colombia. We raced down the dune and dove into the sea. The water refreshing but warm brought the life back into us. The tiredness from this morning melted away and we truly felt lost at the end of the earth.
Tired from the sun and sea, we returned to the Hospadaje for lunch and some rest time. Watching some of the local kids play soccer in the hazy afternoon heat, the day slowly drifted into night. We enjoyed fresh fish for dinner and headed to our rooms for some much-needed sleep before our last early morning wake up call.
The Long Journey Home.
Alarms were set for 3:30am as we had to be on our boats by 4. Sleepy and disoriented by the darkness, we made our way down to the sodden mattress filled boats and got cozy. The boat trip home was quiet. We sat reflecting on our last few days as the sun began to illuminate the sky. Our 3 days in the north was an unexpected addition to the itinerary but was without a doubt a highlight in Colombia. It was a glimpse into the lives of the Wayuu peoples’ world. An adventure to the dusty ends of a continent. It was an incredible opportunity to get off the “Gringo Trail” and see a totally different side to South America.
A few hours, and a few very upset stomachs later, we arrived back in Uribia. We thanked our driver and made our way to our hostel in Riohaca to clean up and have a nap. Truly an adventure unlike anything I have experienced before. And one I will never forget.
Extremo Norte Essentials.
So what do you need to know about making the journey to the most Northern Tip of South America?
BUDGET: 265,000-285,000 COP (Approx $125 CAD)
30,000 COP for return collectivo to Uribia
15,000 COP from Uribia to Cabo De La Vela
150,000 COP for complete tour negotiated in Cabo De La Vela with driver (includes all transportation/tours and basic hammock accommodation). If your negotiation skills are top-notch you can get the trip from Uriba to Cabo included in this as well. Bring extra cash if you wish to upgrade to a premium hammock or private room for additional comfort and privacy.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST:
- bathing suit
- running shoes and flip flops
- long sleeves/long pants to protect from mosquitos
- clothes for the day
- mosquito repellent
- hand sanitizer (no running water)
- baby wipes (to freshen up, no showers available)
- toilet paper (just in case!)
- ear plugs, eye mask
- painkillers, Imodium, gravol.
- LOTS of water (buy large jugs and refill smaller bottles), snacks and rum, all these can be purchased in Uribia but will be cheaper in Riohaca.
- camera and fully charged batteries
- playing cards/games to entertain yourselves at night.
- Optional: Sleeping bag liner/sheet will make sleeping in the hammock more comfortable. But a Sarong/light towel will also work well.
While we had no safety issues during our trip, it is something to be very aware of. We met a backpacker whose jeep had been robbed while on the way up north. Be sure to hide extra cash/valuables. Also, there are “road blocks” set up by some of the kids from very poor families along the road. We had been advised to bring candy to give out so they would let you pass. I wouldn’t advise to do this as it brings no benefits for the kids. You are better to stock up on bags of water/fresh fruit and veg/school supplies and hand those out. The poverty in these areas can be quite shocking if you are not expecting it.
It is very important to remember that you will be in a very remote area. Be sure to bring basic medications and items to help keep things sanitary. With running water considered a luxury, the likelihood of picking something up is increased. Two out of five in our group got really bad food poisoning. Be prepared to rough it and bring any comforts with you. If this option seems far too adventurous for you, there are chartered tour groups that you can book through. You will spend more money, but you will have the peace of mind of travelling with a company.
Most importantly bring a sense of adventure!
And hold onto your socks, because you are about to head into one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in Colombia.
Planning a trip to South America and Colombia? Check out my Colombia Travel Guide for all my tips and recommendations to help inspire your adventure!